Kris Freeman wasn’t satisfied with his overall ranking at the 2011 Tour de Ski, in which he finished 28th, 13-and-a-half minutes behind overall winner Dario Cologna.
But one thing that was satisfactory? In fact, close to perfect? Freeman’s blood sugar management, as evidenced by the fact that he was able to ski to seventh place in the final climb on the last day of the Tour—less than a minute behind winner Lukas Bauer, and just seven seconds behind Canadian climbing ace Ivan Babikov.
For Freeman, a type 1 diabetic, controlling his blood sugar was the paramount concern for the eight-stage event, since poor management had the potential to ruin races, or even destroy his entire Tour. Severe lows, like Freeman had last season, can compromise his immune system for weeks.
“Going into an event like the Tour as a type 1 diabetic is always going to be about getting out the other side alive,” said Zach Caldwell, Freeman’s coach. “Clearly, there were some goals to produce some good results, but with Kris, that all comes on the back of good control—there’s never another way to do it.”
In an interview last week from his home in New Hampshire, Freeman said that with the exception of a couple of minor episodes, he didn’t have any bad blood sugar days on the Tour. His results in the race were up and down, ranging from 55th on the prologue to seventh on the last day, but he chalked up the volatility to factors unrelated to diabetes, like training and wax.
Before the prologue, which Freeman described as “pretty pathetic,” he said that he was coming off a period of “a lot of volume, and very little intensity.”
According to Caldwell, Freeman’s fitness profile tends to be more stable when he’s putting in big hours—and it also responds very quickly to intensity. So the pair’s approach to the Tour was to send Freeman in with a decent base, use the races as training, and give him a shot at his best performances later on in the event.
“The trend was to improve throughout, and that was what I was hoping I could do,” Freeman said.
The race following the prologue, a 15-kilometer classic, wasn’t a whole lot better—Freeman finished 28th. But the day afterwards, in the third stage, things started looking up, as he squeaked into the sprint heats on the World Cup for the first time ever, in 15 tries. Three days later, he qualified again.
Caldwell said that Freeman hadn’t prioritized the sprints, or even done major warm-ups for the qualifiers, since the two wanted to “keep those days as easy as possible, in the context of the overall Tour.”
“The approach to the sprints was not to reach for great performances, or to hit qualifying super-hard,” Caldwell said. Nonetheless, in the first sprint, Freeman “looked as good as anyone.”
Granted, neither race included full World Cup fields—and, as Freeman acknowledged, it also helps when many of the sprinters are fatigued from distance racing. However, he said, since the race formats currently favored by the International Ski Federation (FIS) suit athletes that can cross over well between distances, he plans to put “a little more focus on sprinting.”
Two sprints in four days may have presented an unconventional challenge for Freeman, but there were plenty of others on the Tour, including the 20-kilometer pursuit that was the fourth stage.
Over the past few years, Freeman has devised different insulin dosing regimes for sprints, 15-kilometer races, and 30-kilometer races. But the 20-kilometer distance is rarely raced by the men on the World Cup, and consequently, Freeman had to come up with a new strategy.
“It’s nice that FIS wants to change formats,” he said, “but they certainly weren’t thinking about diabetic skiers.”
For the 15 k races, Freeman uses a large insulin dose, since the adrenaline released by his body during the shorter, harder efforts results in rapidly rising blood sugar—which requires plenty of insulin to transfer it into cells. For the 30 k’s, Freeman uses a fraction of the insulin he needs for the shorter races, since the pace is slower and the adrenaline less of a factor.
“The big mystery with the 20 k was, I’ve got these two different, very distinct dosing methods,” Freeman said. “What Zach and I kept debating was whether it would ski like a 15 k or like a 30.”
Ultimately, the two opted for a dose much closer to the amount that Freeman uses for a 30 k. And while he didn’t quite nail it—his blood sugar ended up a bit high—he was in the ballpark, and the result, 11th, ended up being one of his better finishes in the Tour.
With the help of that 11th-place finish, Freeman sat in 20th in the overall after five stages, just three-and-a-half minutes off the leader. But two consecutive bad races dropped him down in the standings—first, a 28th-place finish in the 35-kilometer point-to-point sixth stage in Toblach, Italy, where mediocre skis and a lack of familiarity with the course left Freeman nearly five minutes out.
The next race, in Val di Fiemme, was even worse. This time, Freeman’s skis cost him 10 seconds on the first downhill, 20 seconds on the next one, and ultimately, eight minutes by the end of the day.
“I raced pretty hard for about seven k, and it just wasn’t happening,” he said. “I just decided I was going to ski so I could race the next day.”
It was a good thing he did, because the seventh place in the next day’s hill climb was, as Caldwell put it, “the difference between a really, really disappointing Tour, and a really, really encouraging Tour.”
“It put an exclamation on the first half of the season, from my point of view,” Caldwell said. “You don’t fake that uphill climb.”
Freeman arrived home a few days later, and will train there for nearly a month in advance of the 2011 World Championships in Oslo. In the mean time, he’ll likely race the Craftsbury Marathon in Vermont as a tune-up, on January 29th.
After leaving the European circuit with three top-10’s, an 11th, and a 12th in the first part of the season, Freeman said that had definitely hit his goals. But because he “sniffed something more,” he wasn’t entirely content.
“Obviously, I want something more, so sniffing something and not getting it is a little frustrating,” he said.
As for Oslo, Freeman said that a medal in the races there is a “possibility—but I’m not going to be crushed if it doesn’t happen.”
His aim for those races, he said, is simply to put up his best efforts without being hindered by any medical issues.
At the Olympics in Vancouver, Freeman was derailed by complications from diabetes. But according to Caldwell, he and Freeman have learned from that experience—even if there’s no way to tell whether there will be more problems down the road.
“We might be missing big signs right now, but based on what we know, we’re not missing the same stuff we missed last year,” Caldwell said. “Kris learns the lessons as they come, and there might be more hard lessons ahead.”
For now, Caldwell said, it won’t take a lot to get Freeman to World Championships in peak fitness, because he’s currently healthy, and coming from a stable base fitness.
While Freeman still needs a bit more for Oslo, it shouldn’t take a lot of work to find it, Caldwell said.
“He needs a few workouts where he shows himself the next gear,” Caldwell said. “It’s not a situation where you try to reinvent him as an athlete…You focus on getting him to Oslo in a state where he can make his best effort on the day.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.